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The People

Discover the stories of the people who helped shape Country Music in Nashville.

Mark Wills

"And of course I have some really cool stuff. I have one of the original Buck Owen's red, white and blue guitars that he gave me when I had my very first number one record... And that was actually one of the ones that was played on Hee-Haw. And that's what he gave me."
– Mark Wills –

+ Transcript

- Hey I'm Mark Wills, and you're watching NPT, Nashville Public Television, your home for Nashville stories. You know, that's a hard question because, I mean, there's so many great venues here in Nashville. I mean, you've got places like The Listening Room, you've got places like Third and Lindsley, you've got The Exit Inn, you've got some of the places down on Broadway like, you know, right there at Legends Corner. Of course, my favorite place to play music and to go listen to music is the Grande Ole Opry House or the Ryman, you know because we've played a lot of those shows there. But those are all some great places that if people are comin' to Nashville, if they're lookin' to get out and go experience some of the local culture, that would be the place I would send 'em. I would always say you can never go wrong with a Grand Ole Opry show. That's easy, Alabama. I was nine years old, eight or nine, and Alabama was comin' to Atlanta. And I heard the advertisement on the radio, and I went to my mom and dad's room and I got my mom's VISA card. And I called Ticket Master and I bought two tickets to go see Alabama on my mom's VISA card. I really don't know to this day why the operator could hear a nine year old on the telephone and would sell me two tickets, but they did. Sure enough, there was some tickets showed up at my house, said Alabama, Charlie Daniels on it, and so that was truly, I mean it was, I think that was the turning point for me as a kid. I mean, I loved music. I loved havin' my Conway Twitty albums, and my George Jones records, and I loved all that kinda stuff, but the first time I actually got to sit there and soak it in, the lights and the sound and the live performance, that was the turning point. You know, I think what happened, I think what happened at that point, was when I was listenin' to Merle Haggard, and when I was listenin' to George Jones, and when I was listenin' to Conway Twitty, I think that those records, really sort of, they gave me direction as to what I wanted to sound like. I wanted to be, I always wanted to be known as a great singer. I wanted to be known as the guy who sang great live, but at the same time, picked great songs and put out great music. And I think that, you know, when you go back to those three and then you also sorta jump forward in my adolescence and I started listenin' to Kenny Rogers, and I started listenin' to you know, Ronnie Milsap, and I started listenin' to all those great singers. I think that's what formed my delivery, how I wanted to sound. And you know bein' a young kid, bein' a you know, a seven, eight, nine, 10 year old kid, I mean, I was singin' soprano. I wasn't singin', I wasn't singin' you know down in the register of Ronnie Milsap or Randy Owen or those guys, but that was the beginning. That was the part that really just sort of gave me the direction that I wanted to go. And you know then of course, I bounce forward and I have the greats like Vince Gill, and I have you know, Larry Gatlin, and great singers like that, that really were those guys that picked great songs and sang great melodies, and you know, and were great singers before there was the ability to make somebody a great singer. They were really great singers. What you got on a two inch tape was real. It wasn't a fabrication. It wasn't an altered, you know, and altered state of the performance. So, I think those are the, those guys are the, they're real deal. - Wow. Why you got such hard questions? I guess it would have to be somebody that had passed on. I would have loved, I actually had it set up with Nancy Jones, that I was going to record, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" with George Jones before he passed away. And we just never got around to it. You know, of course George got sick and we had talked about it one day at our, my daughter and her orthodontist. We had talked about it in there and it was like, "Hey, how cool would this be?" And she's like, "Mark," she goes, "that is, um, that is a perfect time to have that song come by because there are the new guys that are filling those shoes. And I said I would love to record that. And we never got it done. I just think that song, "Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes", George Jones, was sort of one of those songs that I heard as a kid but I always loved the sentiment of that. You know, and as I have stepped into a role as one of the newest Grand Ole Opry members, that song really means something different to me now. You know, as George Jones was a Grand Ole Opry member and you know of course he passed on. And as a new Opry member, that's our job. Our job is to take country music to the next generation. And we're gonna have people that come in that are you know, that are the what we consider, when I say the, "Old School" country. You know, but you're gonna have a lot of the new people that are comin' in and they're lookin' at country music differently. All of us. Not just myself and not just Bill Anderson. And not just Connie Smith. And you know and Jeannie Seely and you know and those folks. It's gonna be up to this generation, to the Kelsea Ballerini's, to the Chris Janson's , to the Chris Jones's, to myself, to those people, to continue that tradition of country music on. And I truly believe that you know, that's what, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes", was talking about. When George Jones recorded that he wasn't an old man. He was singing about Hank Sr., and he was singing about Ernest Tubb, and he was singing about those people that came before him. And how it was sort of his job to take country music from where it was and move it forward. And that's sorta where I feel like we are now. It's our job to take country music whether you like more of the contemporary side or you like more of the traditional side. Wherever you fit in that world, it's our job to take that and to move it forward. You know, I don't know that I can ever narrow down what my favorite country musical lyric is. Because I think, day to day sometimes that changes. I think sometimes you're in a great up mood and you know, and you wanna drive around singing, "Okie from Muskogee". You know, and you could live your entire life through lyrics of Merle Haggard songs, you know? There are days that I get in my truck and I wanna hear an old Lefty Frizzell or Whitey Shafer song, that Keith Whitley recorded called, "I Never Go Around Mirrors". There are days that nothing is going to you know, nothing is going to taste as good on my country music pallette as Conway Twitty. You know? So I don't know that there's ever a day that I could narrow it down to just one song. I truly believe that as life progresses, as we get older, as we age, as we "season", in our lives, different songs come in and they mean different things to you. You know? If my whole life could be wrapped up in a Spotify play list but it probably be about could songs long. Drums! Still have my first drum kit. My grandma, well now I take that back. My grandpa, my step-grandpa, Paw Paw Nick, gave me my first guitar at about the ripe old age of five. And not knowing that it was a Gibson J-50, I beat it, I hit tennis balls with it, I did everything that a five year old would do with something that he didn't know how to use. And it's kind of funny that you would bring that up. Because not too long ago, I was, I was at Disney with my kids. We're on a daddy/daughter trip to Disney. And Carter's vintage guitar popped up like on Instagram The guitar, the very same guitar. It wasn't mine. It was just like the guitar that my step grandpa had given me as a kid. And I called him and I'm like, "I don't care what it costs, I'll buy". That's the one I want. That's it." And so I went back and I repurchased, I purchased another one like the original that I had had. If you really wanna talk about what my first real instrument was, it was a Ludwig five-piece kit of Vistalite drums that were, you know, like the Led Zeppelin drums basically, from the day. And I still have them My granny bought me those when I was about 11. And I still have them to this day. They're in my music room at the house. And I believe if memory serves me correctly, I believe they're right about the time I was born. I was born in 1973. And I think those were from about that era. So, it's kind of a cool collectors piece to have. And of course I have some really cool stuff. I have one of the original Buck Owen's red, white and blue guitars that he gave me when I had my very first number one record. I have some cool stuff. So, I was playing the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, California. And I get this, I walk in, I walk into the Crystal Palace and there in all of it's glory under the lights is the red white and blue, Buck Owens American guitar. And I remember as a kid watching Hee-Haw and all that sort of stuff, I remember seeing that guitar. And I thought, "Man! I want one of those guitars for Christmas." So I asked my mom, I was like, "Mama. Red, white and blue guitar." And she never got me one. So, we're playing you know, bounce forward 20 years. I'm now 24 years old. I'm playing Buck's Place and you know, and I walk in we got our very first number one record. And I'm like, "I'm buying one of those guitars". So, my road manager kind of doubled-crosses me, goes behind me and tells the guy, tells Jerry at the Crystal Palace, "Don't sell that Mark. He's got his first number one, we wanna buy him a guitar". So the story goes, they get their money together, they go up, Jerry takes him up to the office. Buck is sittin' at his desk in the office and he walks in and he pulls the money out of his pocket and he hands it to him and he says, "This is gonna mean so much to Mark." You know, "Mark always wanted one of these guitars as a kid". And his mom never would buy him one and now he's got his first number one. And Buck says, "His first number one?". He's like, "Yes sir." He goes, it was a Friday but we had just found out that on Monday back in the day when the chart came out on Monday, we found out we were gonna have a number one record on Monday. And Buck says to Jerry, "Go get that guitar that's in the vault". And Jerry's like, "The one that's in the vault?" He goes, "Yeah." He goes, "Go get the one that's in the vault." And that was actually one of the ones that was played on Hee-Haw. And that's what he gave me.

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